Category Archives: Information Literacy

On Critical Habits of Mind

This semester I’ve been working with a First Year Seminar on Business Ethics & Corporate Responsibility. For their semester-long research assignment, each student selected a company from the 2016 Forbes Most Ethical Companies list. They were asked to investigate the company’s relationship to its customers, employees, the environment, and international suppliers (if applicable), and how these relationships reinforce or undermine the company’s values, ethics, and/or statements of corporate responsibility. It’s an amazing assignment developed by one of our college’s philosophy professors, one that is ripe for critical thinking, questioning, and information literacy.

Two weeks ago I met with the students in this class for a second time. I want to check-in with them and facilitate a workshop where they could ask questions, share concerns, and discuss their information needs. As with many library classes, what I thought students would need and what they ended up needing were not quite the same thing. The students in this class overwhelmingly needed help developing critical questions, and by that I mean questions that interrogate the public image that companies put forth into the world.

How does your company treat its employees?

Oh you know, good. They say they value them.

But what does valuing an employee mean? Do they pay a living wage? What are their benefits like? Do they offer paid parental leave? Childcare? Do they negotiate fairly with unions? Do they offer flexible schedules? Do they practice inclusion in recruitment and retention? Is diversity and comfort of employees a top priority?

The list goes on and on.

I realize that part of the ease with which I develop these questions comes from being a working adult, but a bigger part of my ability to do this comes from the critical habits of mind I’ve worked to develop over the years. I’ve reached a point where I just can’t turn my critical consciousness off (nor would I want to do so), but I recognize that not all students are quite there yet. Learning to ask questions, to interrogate information you read, takes time.

So we practiced.

We spent much of the class thinking of different questions to ask about each company in relation to each of its stakeholders. Things like, Where are they manufacturing their products? to What kinds of advertising do they practice? Students dutifully wrote these questions down and began to think about how they might apply to their research of their selected company, then I got a question I get all the time, but in this particular context, surprised me:

How do we know if the information we find is credible? How do we know if it’s good?

We’d just spent the majority of the class period interrogating  company statements of corporate responsibility and asking difficult questions about their companies’ actions in relation to their stated values and ethics. But students couldn’t continue that line of questioning to the information sources they were finding in online news outlets, websites, and library databases. I got lots of “if it’s from a .com site it’s not credible,” when all of our major news outlets end in .com. Or, and this one is always my favorite, “it’s based on unbiased facts, not someone’s opinion,” which is, of course, all kinds of problematic.

These exchanges reinforced my long-held belief that critical questioning is hard. It’s not something we’re born knowing how to do, but rather, it’s something we practice day in and day out. I finally stopped the students and said that “good” sources are hard to categorize, and that it’s really up to us to do our due diligence. The SAME way you are really digging deep into your companies and investigating them online is what you should be doing for EVERY INFORMATION SOURCE YOU FIND. Who is the author or publisher? What do you know about them? What is the point of view this piece is trying to share? How might this be helpful to you? What kinds of other information sources is this piece citing, agreeing with or refuting?

Checklists are easy. Questions are hard. It’s important that we facilitate opportunities for our students to practice critical questions, I would say, particularly NOW more than ever. We need to pick apart statements that are made on campaign trails and rallies, question narrow-minded views of the world, and challenge anti-everything populist rhetoric. Critical questioning is not just an information literacy or academic skill, it’s a life practice and habit of mind we’ll need in the years to come.

What does open pedagogy for information literacy look like?

We’re launching Domain of One’s Own at my institution this year. If you haven’t heard of Domains, it’s a program that helps institutions offer students, faculty, and staff online spaces that they control. Domains grew out of a project at the University of Mary Washington (UMW). Co-founders Jim Groom and Tim Owens have since spun it into a venture all its own. Their company, Reclaim Hosting, has so far launched Domains programs at over 40 institutions. At my institution, our Domains initiative will enable members of our campus community to publish, curate, and share their work online. They will be able to register their own domain names, associate them with a hosted web space, and easily install a variety of applications in order to experiment with both digital tools and digital literacy practices. Digital identity and data ownership are at the core of Domains; it’s about understanding the data that makes up your digital presence, developing facility with digital tools and spaces, and defining who you are online.

We’re launching a few key initiatives as part of our Domains kickoff, most notably a faculty learning community and a cohort of students training to become digital learning assistants. As part of our Domains launch, co-founder Jim Groom came to campus for a series of kickoff events last week. (My colleague Lora Taub-Pervizpour, who has spearheaded Domains on our campus, wrote a great post about Jim’s visit that you might find interesting.) While on campus, Jim talked about how his work at UMW grew into Domains and was, at least in part, motivated by the frustrations of learning management systems. In restricted spaces like Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas, student learning and work products are locked down and immobile. In “The Web We Need to Give Students,” Audrey Watters wrote about how Domains, by contrast, permits students to work in their own spaces. “And then—contrary to what happens at most schools, where a student’s work exists only inside a learning management system and cannot be accessed once the semester is over—the domain and all its content are the student’s to take with them. It is, after all, their education, their intellectual development, their work.” (For some more good reading on Domains, see “A Domain of One’s Own in a Post-Ownership Society” again by Audrey Watters, as well as “Do I Own My Domain If You Grade It?” by Andrew Rikard.)

But this is not (meant to be) a post about Domains really. Instead, all this Domains talk has me thinking about pedagogy and learning. Because Domains is also about openness and transparency.

The success of Domains, Jim said in his keynote, is not about technology. Instead, its success is the openness it facilitates: thinking out loud, engaging in reflective practice with a community of peers. As part of the Domains story, Jim shared his experiences creating ds106, an open, online course on digital storytelling. As described on the site, the course was “part storytelling workshop, part technology training, and, most importantly, part critical interrogation of the digital landscape that is ever increasingly mediating how we communicate with one another.” The course embodied openness in many ways. UMW students enrolled in the semester-long course and served as its core community, but the course was open to anyone who wanted to participate alongside the UMW students. But the part that piqued my interest most was its open pedagogy; Jim talked about how he did the assignments with the students and also described how students created the assignments. “The only reason it worked,” Jim said, “was because we built an open ecosystem for it to thrive.”

This prompted me to reflect on what open pedagogy means, what potential it holds. (Check out “‘Open’ for the Public: Using Open Education to Build a Case for Public Higher Ed”, “Open Pedagogy: Connection, Community, and Transparency”, and “Eight Qualities of Open Pedagogy” for some quick, getting-started readings on open pedagogy.) To me, open pedagogy is an invitation for learning. What grabs me most are the qualities of transparency, community, and responsiveness at its core.

In information literacy teaching and learning, for example, fostering transparency in the classroom might happen when we simply articulate the learning goals for a class or uncover research strategies to expose the what, how, and why of our processes. Open pedagogy means helping students think metacognitively about the strategy of their work to make learning more meaningful and transferable. It also means making the method and purpose of our teaching transparent to students.

Open pedagogy is also about community, inviting students to co-construct learning experiences. Whether asking students to design their own assignments as in Jim’s ds106 case or developing activities grounded in constructivist and self-regulated learning theories or even just asking students about their habits, perspectives, and approaches before telling them what they should do, co-constructed learning increases student agency and investment.

Open pedagogy is about being flexible and responsive. It means meeting learners where they are, rather than where we think they are or should be.

I’m interested to recognize the small ways I’m practicing open pedagogy, but I’m still more interested to identify the opportunities–big and small–that I haven’t yet grabbed hold of. What does open pedagogy for information literacy look like for you? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

When is the Struggle TOO Real?

One of the advantages of having a partner who happens to be a math professor is that we can talk academic shop. A few weeks ago, over a serious dishwasher unloading, we started talking about a recurring theme manifesting itself in our college’s faculty Facebook group: toughening up college students. From debates about trigger warnings to conversations about cultivating students’ grit and comfort with failure, our colleagues are consistently inconsistent about how we should help college students succeed in academia and life. I’ll lump myself and my partner into this group, too. As a faculty we want to be sensitive to student needs and life experiences, but we also don’t want them to fall apart if they get a bad grade on an exam. We want them to make a real attempt at solving a difficult problem or tackling a challenging project on their own before asking for help, but we also recognize that many students have serious outside stressors (economic, familial, emotional, etc.) that might prevent them from giving their all to their studies.

For years librarians have been chanting that “failure is good” because it is a signal of attempted innovation, creative practice, and learning (particularly when applied to information literacy instruction). We want our students to learn from their mistakes, which means they have to make them first. Math education is no different. There’s a small but mighty push for experiential and problem-based learning within the discipline that wants students to learn from their mistakes. As my partner and I discussed this we couldn’t help but wonder:

At what point is the struggle too much?

Earlier in the day he’d met with a student who claimed she was working on one homework problem for 4 hours. Earlier that semester I’d met with a student who spent an entire weekend looking for research in the wrong places with the wrong search terms. I’m all for giving it the old college try, but in both cases, this just plain excessive struggle for little reward. As a librarian who has been doing this job for a while, I have a good sense of when I’ve tapped my intellectual well. I know when to ask for help. My partner does, too. Most academics know when to take a step back, take another approach, or ask a colleague for suggestions. But this is a learned skill. We like to think of it as tacit knowledge–students have to experience failure to know when they are failing the right way as opposed to just struggling unnecessarily–but is it really? Does the experience alone help them gain this knowledge? Or can the struggle just be too real for some students, leading them to eventually equate math or research with pointless stress?

I think the key in the library classroom is not to focus on failure but to focus on process: Model, practice, repeat–over and over again. It’s a challenge when so much of students’ grades depend on a final product (an exam, a paper, a presentation, etc.) and often requires a shift in emphasis from the professor. By modeling a process–a step I think we (and I know I) often overlook in our attempts to make our classrooms spaces for active learning–we give students a sense of what struggle can look like. Granted, there’s no one standard process for research, and we don’t want to imply that there is one, but making our thinking and doing visible to our students can go a long way towards demystifying research. We get stuck, we back-track, we try again, we struggle, but we are never alone when we do so. It’s something I try to stress to all my students in hopes that they too feel like they never have to struggle alone.

Following the road of assessment

This Fall semester has been taking off like a rocket. It’s been a little less than a month, but library instruction has been taking up a good chunk of my time. At my institution, American University, we have a program called College Writing. This program requires all incoming freshman to take at least one section of College Writing.

Every faculty member that teaches College Writing is paired with a librarian. At least one library instruction session is required and it’s up to us to shape the lesson so that it’s relevant to the student’s’ current assignment.

This semester is a bit different. I had a total of 18 sections of College Writing, compared to the nine sections I had last Fall. I was prepared for a busy semester. Oh boy, has it been busy and it’s only been 2 weeks!

I could be as detailed as I want about my routine, but it’s basically a chain of communication. I ask the faculty member about learning outcomes, what they want out of this library instruction day, what skill level their students are at, and are the students quiet? Do they participate? Details like these help me out a lot, since I will only see the students in the classroom once or twice in the semester.

As I scheduled classes, reserved rooms, and worked on my class outlines, I struggled with how I would incorporate assessment into my lessons. Assessment is a topic I have been thinking about for a while. To be honest, this was a subject that I had been avoiding because it was something that made me uneasy. I have always told myself “I’ll do it next semester” or “I’ll find more information about it later.”

However, it’s been a year since I have started my job at American and decided that this semester it was time to incorporate assessment into my library instruction. When I think of assessment, I tend to think of a ton of data, a desk full of papers everywhere, and an endless amount of work (OK, I like to exaggerate). Now, I do have some forms of assessment in my classes, but it’s in the form of the questions I ask the students in order to evaluate their familiarity with not only the library, but the resources that we are using in class.

Assessment comes in many forms, but I specifically had one method in mind. Over the summer, I worked with another colleague in doing library instruction for the Summer Transition Enrichment Program (STEP). This program provides incoming freshman with preparation for academic success. STEP is a 7 week residential program that helps students with the transition from high school to college. They have a class that is very similar to a College Writing class, meaning, they have a research paper due by the end of the program. One of the components of that class is a library instruction day. As my colleague and I started preparing to co-teach one of the classes, she asked what form of assessment I do for my College Writing classes.

Immediately, I felt ashamed. All the time I had put assessment off and this was the moment where I finally had to own up to it. However, I have awesome colleagues who don’t poke (too much) fun at me. She talked about the post class questionnaire that she usually did with her students. Together, we came up with a couple of questions for the students in the STEP class. It was not a long process whatsoever, but I came to see that there is actually nothing scary about it, like I had thought.

There are many different types of assessment, ones more complicated and time consuming than my little questionnaire. However, I wanted to start small and with something I was comfortable with.  My library instruction classes only started last week, but I remember getting back the questionnaires and leaving them on my desk for a couple of hours. I was afraid to look at them. What if the students did not learn anything? What if they hated me? What if I was the worst librarian ever?

After a couple hours, I needed to log my classes into our stats. I counted the questionnaires and look through them. To my surprise, the students did well. Now, this is an assessment to help me analyze what the students had trouble comprehending and also the areas where I need to do better.

And guess what happened? I found one area where I realized I needed to explain better and spend a little more time on. It’s only the beginning of the semester and I have already found ways to improve upon and this is what it’s really about. To me, assessment is an opportunity to learn about your teaching and improve as you go along.

As someone who is new to this, I want to continue to learn about assessment. There are a couple of resources that one can turn to:

-Look at your own institution to see if they offer any workshops on assessment. What resources do they offer to help their staff or faculty?

-Research other institutions to see if they have assessment in place or an assessment toolkit

-Research the literature on instruction and assessment to see how other institutions go about it

Finally, your colleagues will be your most valuable tools. What assessment do they do? Take them out for coffee and ask them!

I still have a couple more College Writing classes, but I am going to make it my goal to incorporate even more assessment for next semester’s classes. In other words, I am going to make myself accountable. For next semester, I will write another post on how I plan to incorporate more assessment into my teaching, but I also want to know from our readers, what assessment do you do for library instruction? Stay tuned!

Starting from the bottom and teaching my way to the top

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jessica Kiebler, Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College.

My journey into the world of librarianship started with my failure to get a job as an elementary education teacher. I’ll never know if that was due to the over saturated job market or my newbie skills, but one would think that with my undergraduate degree in elementary education, I would be ready to take on library instruction like a fish to water. However, I was never truly confident in front of 30 screaming children so while the transition to libraries wasn’t surprising, getting a job as an instructional librarian was a bit daunting. So if I didn’t want to teach, then how did I end up in an instruction position at an academic college instead of a public reference librarian? Good question. After five years as a librarian and one year in my current position as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College, I decided to reflect on my journey from uncertainty to confidence.

You have to start somewhere

More than a year after graduating with my MLIS, I began working as a solo librarian at a small nursing college that needed a librarian to create their library. Yes, create a library from nothing but shelves, an ILS and a computer. Thankfully, the Director of Education had purchased hundreds of books before I had started and I began the task of cataloging them and organizing the physical space. Not only was I in charge of reference, maintaining the collection and all policy creation but also designing an instruction program. It was an amazing opportunity to learn but also very intimidating in my first professional position without the assistance of a mentor or experienced librarian. I took everything I had learned from my MLIS program and my undergraduate pedagogy courses and combined it with my own research to create a basic instruction program to show students how to use the library resources. The resulting lessons were basic but worked for the limited time and prior knowledge of the students.

Smarter, not harder

As any educator knows, the best lesson plans can mean nothing if an instructor does not have classroom presence or presentation skills. My lack of confidence showed through to my students so while my lesson plans were well written, my pacing and poor question prompting did not create a cohesive experience. I was also dealing with a short amount of instruction time combined with a student body who had little to no computer skills. This made getting experience in teaching actual information literacy very difficult because my classes became so much more about getting students to access the library website or about how to navigate a browser. As it became evident that this was not isolated to my first few cohorts, I had to start teaching smarter, not harder. I made notes about common issues students were having so I could create visual aids that would be on the screen while I walked around and assisted. I made time in my lessons for the common computer questions since I knew they would distract students from learning the steps to get the resources they needed. So while I thought these initial problems were distracting me from teaching, it was actually helping me to learn the constant juggling act that is teaching.

Frequently, I would be ready to move on from the initial login process (our students needed to login to the library website to access any resources) and a student would come in late or say they needed help because they had missed the instructions. In my first months that would have thrown off my thought process and I would have paused the whole class to assist. I learned from my mistakes by preparing the classroom beforehand with login information on the board so students could troubleshoot on their own or with the help of a fellow student. I no longer let those distractions keep me from moving on to my next thought or stall the class. Having a fellow librarian or mentor may have helped me make these progressions faster, but doing it on my own gave me the confidence that I could conquer anything. The challenges of working with limited time and support also forced me to get creative and create resources outside of the classroom that I could use to support students in accessing the library. Since we didn’t have LibGuides, I used free tools like Google Sites and LiveBinders combined with physical handouts and a YouTube page of screencast videos. These aids were incredibly helpful to students who felt they couldn’t absorb everything in one session or who needed a refresher later.

While I made steps to improve my lesson plans each term, I felt unable to move past the limitations of my environment. I updated slides, made handouts clearer and created more effective examples but I wasn’t moving towards a more engaging classroom experience. I felt stuck in the rut of assessing with the same handout and seeing the same issues with student responses month after month. I was proud of what I’d accomplished on my own but knew that I might need some guidance to improve even more. I just didn’t know how much more I would come to learn.

Joining the A-Team

In April 2014, I was hired as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College where I currently work. After two years at my previous position, I knew I was capable of standing in front of a classroom, delivering a lecture, and walking students through technical assistance but I wanted more. I was now working at a college with many majors and would be instructing in the schools of Liberal Arts and Health Studies on much more than just how to access the library website. Would I be able to craft effective, engaging lessons on information literacy objectives? Would I be able to deliver these lessons with confidence? My imposter syndrome was on high alert in my new position.

While it might have worked for me before (although slowly), I didn’t want to rely on my own persistence to improve. I contacted our Information Literacy Coordinator and discussed my concerns about my own teaching: “I’m nervous about trying new assessments. I’m not familiar with these classes. And how do I incorporate information literacy into a database lesson?!” He said not to worry and that it would come with practice. I had the core skills necessary and I could see some sample lesson plans that were already created to get used to teaching in this new environment. Having these road-tested lessons did help my confidence a bit but I still struggled with pacing myself and being comfortable with the silence that can follow when you ask a room of students a question. I knew if I wanted to improve I had to once again find a way to learn from my mistakes.

Tools for success

One tool that helped me more than I thought possible was creating an instruction journal. Immediately after each classroom session, I wrote down all of my impressions from my teaching:

  • How many students were there?
  • What did I teach?
  • What did I do well?
  • Where did I slip up?
  • Were there interesting interactions with students?

Getting those ideas and feelings out on the page created a place for me to archive them so I could go back and improve and also a way to reflect on what could have been better. Since I frequently teach the same courses, I would read through the journal before similar sessions and prepare myself to practice certain skills. This helped me to focus my energy on what needed work and just do what I knew how to do for the rest. I don’t share my instruction journal with anyone so I feel confident in writing whatever feels natural for me and to really be critical (or complimentary!). It’s also a great tool to go back to for yearly evaluations so I can find places where I excelled to point out to supervisors. I also made notes on any fun things I might want to try in the future once I felt comfortable with meeting the basic course objectives.

Finally, success

Finally, I had an instruction success that felt like the culmination of my 5 years of work. While doing outreach to English faculty to plan instruction, a new professor suggested a scavenger hunt lesson which she had done at a previous institution. The concept reminded me of a recent article I had read about creating “stations” for students for a library resources lesson[1]. I crafted a lesson geared for our library – from objectives to rubrics – and the professor loved it so we scheduled a session. On the day of the class, I pored over my notes to make sure I had the sequence of events down. I was sure I would mess up some part and have to backtrack. But I was wrong. I focused my energy on the skills I knew were my weakest – pacing, not being scripted or attached to a Powerpoint, giving students prompts if they aren’t quick to answer my questions – and the session was a success. Students not only completed my worksheet, they did so with thoughtful answers and even made insightful comments in our post-instruction discussion. It was a rewarding experience that I hope to continue.

Final reflections

I have now been a librarian for 5 years. I still have not conquered imposter syndrome (many librarians say they never do) and I know I can still improve my instruction skills. But I’ve learned that you don’t always need formal instruction to take on new skills. So much of my journey was done by coaching myself and learning from others – librarian bloggers, education authors, fellow librarians, my own students, and my own mistakes. I also relied on my fellow team members to help me work through ideas I had for future lessons which always bolstered my confidence. I sometimes felt like asking for help would make it seem like I wanted to take my colleagues’ ideas – especially as the newest member of the team. But when you work with a real team, they’ll understand when you’re looking for guidance and not hand-holding. I frequently felt so inspired by their work that it was easy to come up with my own ideas for lessons and assessment. You may also feel like asking for help means that you aren’t qualified to do your job but asking for help means you are willing to do the work to do better. I feel much more confident in the classroom these days and have even created engaging lessons that I’m proud of. Those pep talks and failures can show you that there’s so much more ahead than behind you.

[1] Fontno, T. J., & Brown, D. N. (2015, February). Putting information literacy in the students’ hands: The elementary learning centers approach applied to instruction in higher education. College & Research Libraries News, 76(2), 92-97.